Women behind the wheel: The rise of female-owned and operated snow removal companies in Eagle County
On a fresh powder day, in the early hours of the morning, in the midst of the most difficult road conditions our valley sees, the snow plow drivers of Eagle County set out on their routes.
Often they begin at 2 or 3 a.m., ensuring that people can safely exit their homes for work and first-track turns. They are not always in sight, but if you happen to come in contact with a plow on the streets of our valley, there’s a good chance that the person behind the wheel is a woman.
“I love the double takes, I really do,” said Mariella Moyer, co-owner of Black Diamond Enterprises.
Many of the prominent snow removal companies in Eagle County are owned and operated by women. In a practice that is typically associated with masculinity, female entrepreneurs are staking a growing claim, taking both the manual labor and administrative duties of the plowing industry in stride.
Lori Russell was the first woman to go into the plowing industry in Eagle County back in 1980. Her partner at the time had started a small one-man plowing operation, and when they expanded to two trucks, Russell got behind the wheel.
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“When we went our separate ways, I decided that as a woman, I don’t have a lot of credentials, I don’t have a lot of ways to make a living, but I knew how to run trucks and I knew how to plow, so I went under my own name in 1985 and just started knocking on doors,” Russell said.
Russell’s business, All Seasons Service, grew into a successful operation that continues to serve the community. The longevity of her business speaks to her quality of service, but Russell said that when she first started, she had to use the men in her life as fronts in order to gain business.
“People look at a woman and you can tell — they assume right off the bat, ‘Oh, it’s just a girl, what does she know?’ So when I was with various men, I would have them be my front man, make the bid or something like that, and then I’d be the one that shows up at the job,” Russell said. “That was kind of fun sometimes, especially when I would show up with the front-end loader and be pushing banks back. Sometimes the whole family would gather out on the front porch and watch me. I got a little notorious with a lot of my customers that way.”
Russell was the first woman behind a plow in Eagle County, but she was by no means the last. Today, there are at least six woman-owned or co-owned plow companies in the valley, as well as many more female plow drivers keeping the storms’ impact at bay.
Stepping up and into the driver’s seat
Laurie Caradonna began Caradonna Snow Plowing with her husband in 1986. Similar to Russell’s story, they started with one plow, and when a second one became available, Caradonna didn’t hesitate to step into the role.
“It is a ruthless job,” Caradonna said. “When it snows hard and you have breakdowns and things going on, things mount up and people need help with work or are just overwhelmed, I mean, how do you really look at someone and say no? I’m just not afraid to jump into the driver’s seat, which obviously these other women aren’t either.”
Caradonna never subscribed to the idea that the spheres of life that are habitually designated as a “man’s world” were off limits to her. If anything, it just made her want to get more involved.
“We’ve always done motorcycles, Harleys, and, I mean, you talk about a man’s world … people were like, ‘Oh you can’t ride those,’ or ‘you can’t do that,’ so we’ve always had a thing that’s like, ‘Yeah? Watch me do it’,” Caradonna said.
Now in her mid-60s, Caradonna still plows her own route from East Vail to Vail, easily identifiable in her red Jeep with the license plate “Santa” in memory of a fellow plower, the late Lou Meskimen.
“That’s my red sleigh,” Caradonna said with a laugh.
Patti White became the sole owner of her company Alpine Snow Removal and Trucking after buying out her partner in 2000. White said the success she has found in both plowing and trucking has more to do with strategy and focus than brute force, which can be done equally well — or poorly — by men and women. —
“I always said it’s all about angles, and I’ve always been able to see angles — I’ve always been good at playing billiards too,” White said. “I’ve had employees that were men that just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t see it, couldn’t pull into a driveway and know which way to push, they just didn’t get it, and I’ve had women the same way.”
White, also in her mid-60s, still plows her own routes and often provides emergency services to clients herself. Though she’s planning to retire soon, she said that the work has become such an elemental part of her identity that most people just know her as “Alpine Patti.”
“I hate going over the pass, I hate driving at night, I hate all that, but I love being out there by myself. I love it,” White said. “I love looking at a driveway, looking at a parking lot, and telling myself that’s a job well done.”
Tougher than the tempest
Snow removal, especially in an area like Eagle County, is undeniably a grueling job. When things are going smoothly, it can be a quiet, peaceful ride through a winter wonderland before anybody else gets up. But when things get tough, plow drivers need to be tougher.
“It’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever done,” Russell said. “It is very physically demanding, and that’s when you realize that that’s why women brought men into the universe — to do all the heavy lifting. As a woman, I had to be ingenious, whether it came to mounting the snow plows myself or chaining up a loader. You do have to really push yourself to have the confidence to do it, and then know when to ask for help.”
Moyer has been the co-owner of Black Diamond Enterprises with her husband Todd since 2005.
“It doesn’t matter how good you are, especially when there’s continuous snowfall, you’re going to get stuck,” Moyer said. “All of our vehicles have skid plates in them, they have tow straps in them, they have cinders, shovels, anything that you would need to get yourself unstuck. I’m not a damsel in distress out there, at all.”
Moyer now manages a fleet of 19 plow vehicles, organizes routes and schedules for 15 drivers from East Vail to Gypsum, and plows her own route, but said she still gets surprised reactions from people when she tells them she is a company owner.
“People ask me, ‘and what is your role in the company?’ and then I say I’m the owner and they’re like, ‘oh!’ I think they still think it’s Todd, and it’s like, what? It’s not like women can’t, you know?” Moyer said. “I think it’s intimidating for women to think that they can’t do something like this, but we can.”
Moyer’s general manager, PJ Berg, joined the growing list of female plowers when she started with Black Diamond in 2019.
“I’m a mom. I’ve got kids. I like to dress up and go do things, but I’m not trying to conform to a stereotype in anything,” Berg said. “During the summer, we’re digging ditches. During the winter, you’re plowing, you’re dealing with floods when hot water heaters explode, or whatever it is. I’m not afraid of that, and it’s fun because it’s ever-changing.”
Jessica Keltner took over Powder Mountain Snow Removal in 2017 after her father, longtime local Kurt Keltner, passed away suddenly. Keltner and her brother, Sage, split the business, and they have been plowing their father’s routes from EagleVail to Edwards ever since.
“I just haven’t wanted to give it up because I kind of feel a little bit closer to him when I’m in the truck,” Keltner said. “It’s meditative. You just get in the car, listen to podcasts, or turn off all sound and just think about things.”
A ‘man’s world’ no more
It’s no secret that the Vail Valley attracts strong women. The self-reliant ethos that draws people to build a life in the mountains is the same drive that has led so many women to get behind the wheel, pick up a shovel, and carve out space in an industry that is so integral to our community’s lifestyle.
All of the women interviewed for this piece said that they receive surprised reactions on a regular basis from people who don’t expect them to be doing the work that they do, but it’s a sight that Eagle County will surely get used to in time — including drivers like Bonnie Dillender, who dress up for the occasion.
“Yeah, I’m a girl — so I have fun sunglasses, fun hats, and sometimes I have silver ski pants,” said Dillender, co-owner and snow-plow driver for Aquascapes and Gardens in Minturn. “You know what, I have a good time with it! And there’s definitely more women I see now, which I think is awesome.”
When women make headway in any industry, it opens the range of options available to every woman that follows behind her, and breaks down the barriers that cordon off the ever-shrinking “man’s world.” Russell is retired now, but she said that she is pleased to see all of the women that have built successful plowing companies in the years since she began.
“My whole life being in men’s work — in between I was also building houses, and I roofed 40 houses in Vail myself — I always said that I can’t wait until this world gets more women in power so that we can fix the God d— world around here, and it’s finally happening,” Russell said.